Labour has abandoned equality but not the "excluded"-the three million people stuck on unpopular council estates. Their lives can be improved without a big increase in spendingby Anne Power / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The decline of inner city neighbourhoods and overspill council estates around the edges of cities has become a commonplace of public debate ever since the riots of the early 1980s. Britain and other European countries began to look as though they were developing ghettos along US lines. Some neighbourhoods became no-go areas where police seemed powerless to prevent disorder.
These problems have worsened over the past 10 years, but remedies are emerging from close-up studies of the most blighted areas. Rather than arguing about whether or not Britain has an underclass, policy-makers are focusing their attention on what is actually happening in Britain’s roughest corners.
There has arguably been more civil turbulence in Britain since 1980 than in any other period this century. Why? In the wake of the slum clearance programmes between the 1930s and the 1970s, employers, landlords and investors abandoned inner cities. Many relocated themselves in suburbs and new towns. They were followed by, and followed, the able-bodied workforce. As a result, unemployment rose disproportionately in poorer, less popular areas. Better-off working class families moved out and new immigrants moved in, competing with those left behind for the worst jobs. In the riot-hit areas of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, the situation was in danger of exploding. Between 1990 and 1995 there were 28 serious riots and up to 100 smaller disturbances following the more publicised inner city riots of the 1980s.
It was at this point that the US term “underclass” began to appear in Britain. But the nature of our cities and social traditions makes the term misleading in the British context. In the US, racial ghettos dominate every main city, and whites and blacks are almost completely segregated. In Britain, all-white peripheral council estates of a thousand or more households are often more isolated, poorer and closer to social breakdown than the racially mixed inner cities.
Violence in American cities has always been more extreme than in Britain. In the late 1980s, the murder rate in the US was eight times higher than in Britain; a single riot in Los Angeles in 1992 left 58 people dead, compared with three dead in the 28 British riots of the 1990s. The underclass debate in the US was also set in a context of minimal welfare support for single-parent families and little entitlement for able-bodied unemployed males. The extremes of poverty and decay in American…